The importance of Publicly Funded Science and the NSF

As I’ve mentioned on this blog, this fellowship in Japan is funded by a partnership between the US National Science Foundation and the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science.  As much as I’m grateful to these organizations as an EAPSI Fellow who has been given the opportunity to do research in Japan, I’m even more grateful to them as a US citizen and a human being who benefits from the fact that they exist and provide desperately needed money to fund work being done by hundreds of thousands of researchers.

Scientific progress has made human life today on average longer, easier, and safer than at any point in history.

What is the NSF?  It’s an agency of the US government that funds research in a ton of fields, including biology, computer science, engineering, math, physics, geoscience, social science, economics, and more.  It’s hard to overstate the importance of the existence of the NSF, and other government agencies that exist to make science possible.  I’m talking about multiple agencies within the US government, like NASA and the National Institutes of Health, as well as their foreign counterparts, like the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science.

To appreciate the importance of the NSF I’d point to these three facts:

  1. Scientific progress has made human life today on average longer, easier, and safer than at any point in history.
  2. Scientific progress isn’t possible without money to pay for research.
  3. For any research that can’t turn a profit in a short period of time, the only reliable way to pay for it is with public investment.

For research that can make money within a couple years of when it’s started, a company can get capital to pay for it and earn that money back once it turns a profit.  But if this were the only way to do research we as a species would have some huge blind spots in terms of what we could discover.  For one thing there’s time- no matter how valuable a discovery is, if you’re going to run out of money before you finish it then it simply isn’t possible.  There’s also risk.  Companies can’t take chances on ideas that might change the world or might  be worthless.

This isn’t to say that scientific progress would slow to a crawl without public investment- I’m saying it would come to a virtual standstill.  That’s because in the cases I described above- research with long term payoffs and research with high risk, you can’t overcome that by making small, incremental improvements to current technology.  No amount of improving on the slide rule would ever create a transistor, just one of many breakthrough technologies that made computers possible.*

The safety of humanity itself depends on research that’s motivated by things besides money.

Aside from research that can’t make money soon, there’s also the fact that some of the most important research isn’t profitable at all.  The looming threat of climate change is easily one of the best examples of this.  Despite what climate change skeptics might claim, scientists aren’t getting rich off sounding the alarm.  Basically no one is- burning fossil fuels is such an amazingly cheap way to generate power that for the economy at large the process of weaning ourselves off of them isn’t in the best interest of our bottom line.  But it is in the best interest of our species.  The safety of humanity itself depends on research that’s motivated by things besides money.

Plus there’s the fact that public funding for science helps private companies in ways besides producing the technology that will lead to their next windfall- public science also funds projects that provide experience for researchers that go on to do research in the private sector.  Without institutions like the NSF, the pipeline of capable scientists going into the private sector wouldn’t be what it is today.

It strikes me as unfortunate that the NSF doesn’t occupy the same status in our collective imaginations as other scientific institutions like NASA.  While organizations like NASA and the CDC can easily be namedropped in movies and tv shows to instantly communicate to the audience that they’re looking at a team of bona fide science badasses, most Americans don’t know what the National Science Foundation is.

But while the public’s lack of awareness of the NSF is disappointing, the good news is that the public is very supportive of the NSF’s mission.  According to a Pew study, 72% of Americans believe government investment in engineering and technology pays off, and 71% of Americans believe government investment in basic scientific research pays off.  While I wish that were higher, it’s comforting to know that a very solid majority of Americans support agencies like the NSF, even if they can’t name them.

*The example of the transistor is an interesting one, because it was developed at the legendary Bell Labs.  As a lab that was privately owned by AT&T it seems to conflict with my praise for publicly funded science.  But I think its a great example of how our most practical technologies depend on investment in fundamental science.  And considering the current fate of Bell Labs compared to it’s heyday, it definitely drives home that public funding is increasingly the only place scientists can turn to when doing fundamental research.


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